in Space, Time, and the Imagination



Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination

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Molière's, Tartuffe: Satire, the Satiric and Comedy

 From Chapter 8, “Molière,” Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp. 124-129


As in Plautus and Shakespeare, we again find in Molière that comedic authors are not averse to introducing chance elements and may even introduce chance elements to advance the plot when there seems no necessity.  Far from indicating an artistic fault or extraneous contingency that forced their use, such chance elements repeatedly prove to be part of the central import of the plays in which they are incorporated.  It is only an Aristotelian influence in criticism that blinds us to these justifiable uses of chance and forces us to condemn great playwrights.  Morris Bishop comments on Molière’s deus ex machina endings only typify the narrow vision that results from such ready application of Aristotle’s prejudice:


[the introduction of deus ex machina denouements] is not good certainly, and there is no use dragging in the deus ex machina of the Greeks. But, aside from the fact that the theories of the well-made play had not yet imposed themselves, Molière was bound by a stage convention.  Comedies regularly ended with a salute of all the players to the audience (our curtain call); it was customary to have all the characters onstage, and the obvious way to arrange this was to show some massive imbroglio, settled by the appearance of an outside agent to resolve the situation with a minimum of explanation.[i]


Once we have accepted the Aristotelian prejudice, we are forced to admit that consistent Molièrean practice is “not good certainly” as comedy!  We are forced to apologize for him by saying that he was bound to stage convention when of all French comedians he seems to have been the most willing to redirect the force of theatre toward his own ends.  We excuse his endings as makeshift and ill-constructed.

Without the Aristotelian prejudice, we are free to see Molière making a salient and typically cynical and satiric implied statement.  Instead of unconsciously accepting the idea that Molière was employing hack practices in some of his greatest plays, we are fee to see why audiences for three centuries have been able to respond to the plays with an enthusiastic sense of Molière’s unique achievement.  Most of all, we are free to recognize that even in Molière’s most comedic and formulaic plays, satire is wrestling with comedy for the upper hand and the central import of the play.  In Molière’s greatest play, Tartuffe, satire did gain the upper hand, and the comedy became little more than a convenient vehicle.

If only light entertainment can be comedy, then Tartuffe never had a chance of being comedy. But while Aristotle’s definition of comedy demands trivial action, our definition has never suggested that comedic action must be either trivial or light. In fact, in a few chapters, we will be considering dark and serious plays from Shakespeare to the present that are still comedies. Our investigation of Tartuffe, then, cannot dismiss it from the realm of comedy without a thorough examination of its patterned structure.

All studies of Tartuffe are hampered by the absence of the original script; it was immediately suppressed by religious authorities. When the play reappeared five years later, it could do so only with the personal support of Louis XIV himself. It is generally agreed that a structural study of Tartuffe must contend with the idea that the structure has been badly warped to allow the play’s reappearance. Especially the concluding scene when Tartuffe is foiled by the all-wise Louis’s intervention on behalf of Orgon and his family, has seemed to most scholars to be a palliative tacked on simply to procure the royal support necessary for production.

As in the cases of Les Précieuses Ridicules and L’Avare however, we will look at the structure of Tartuffe on the assumption that Molière the artist had the final say in its composition, that the structure as it stands is the structure Molière wanted. Why else would he fight so hard to have it reproduced? We are not denying, but rather affirming, the stage history in taking such a position.

This assumption of Tartuffe’s purposeful structure allows us to draw similar conclusions about the cynical and satiric nature of Tartuffe to the ones we have already drawn for the import of Les Précieuses Ridicules and L’Avare.

As a story, Tartuffe’s interest is divided between Orgon and Tartuffe. Orgon resembles a great many father figures in Molière and is perhaps modeled after Molière’s own father. He is a man of substantial wealth who has given in to a personal idiosyncrasy and finds himself hard pressed to get his family to go along with him. Specifically, Orgon has become a religious fanatic and a disciple of a monkishly inclined hypocrite named Tartuffe. Orgon is so devoted that he is more concerned for his private guru than for his wife. He has lost enough family inclinations to put most of his wealth at Tartuffe’s disposal and has ingenuously given incriminating evidence into Tartuffe’s hands that he, Orgon, has had some solicitude for a banished compatriot. Orgon has come to the resolution that his daughter must marry Tartuffe just when she has set her heart on Valère.

Tartuffe, meanwhile, has become infatuated with Elmire, Orgon’s wife. He is unable to refrain from telling her of his desire, which she almost casually rebuffs. Her stepson Damis who has overheard the interview, refuses to let matter drop so easily and tells Orgon what Tartuffe has been up to. Orgon is so taken with Tartuffe that he refuses to believe his son, forcing Elmire to stage a second interview with Tartuffe lest her husband disinherit Damis. Orgon hides under a table while Elmire coaxes Tartuffe to further indiscretions. When Orgon, outraged, finally reveals himself, Tartuffe throws the family out with the legal powers Orgon has given him over the estate. Further, as Orgon begins to suspect, Tartuffe takes the damaging evidence of Orgon’s solicitude for his shadowy banished friend to the king. Valère, suitor to Orgon’s daughter, arrives to say that a warrant is being drawn for Orgon’s arrest. Valère offers his carriage as a means of escape, but just then Tartuffe enters with royal officers. Tartuffe gloats over his victims, finally demanding that the officers do their duty. The officers respond by arresting Tartuffe, not Orgon, declaring that the king has instantly seen through Tartuffe’s hypocrisy and has remembered Orgon’s loyal and heroic military service as a youth. Orgon and his family are left at the final curtain thankful for the king’s justice and united in a mutual agreement to avoid religious enthusiasm and hypocrisy.

The religious controversy that has surrounded the play from its first production only obscures many interesting features of its structure. One unusual feature is the presence of two blocking figures instead of one, the conflict finally being between them rather than between a blocking character and society. Orgon is a humorous character whose major fault is that he has given himself to religious fervor without acquiring religious judgment. He is blinded to the realities of hypocrisy that are obvious to those with far less religious conviction than his. Further, Orgon has learned to admire a hypocritical Christianity in Tartuffe while he has failed to learn any of the Christian principles of self-denial and subjection for the good of others. His religious fervor bears no restraint; it also costs Orgon nothing—though it costs his family dearly—until Tartuffe turns against him. In this sense, Orgon’s zeal is as hypocritical as Tartuffe’s. Unlike Tartuffe, Orgon’s hypocrisy is the result of ignorance. It leaves his life devoid of the natural graces of his former existence and makes him a “heavy father” who is a threat to the happiness and survival of his entire family. Though his military service bespeaks some admirable qualities in the past, he is in serious danger of losing all such traits in an egotistical love of himself in Tartuffe.

Tartuffe is a far simpler character, sold out only to his own duplicitous advancement. He is a religious con man, pure and simple, who has recognized how nearly impossible it will be for anyone to bring a charge against him if he hypocritically admits his sins and asks forgiveness.

As a strong blocking figure, Orgon manages to activate the same kinds of forces against himself that Harpagon did. But Orgon is not as easily defeated as was Harpagon. Orgon’s weakness can only be played upon by Tartuffe himself, and it is only when Tartuffe makes Orgon his victim that Orgon is forced out of his tyrannical ways.

If Orgon is not easily circumvented, Tartuffe is even less so. Not even his own indiscretions are enough to discomfit him, but they do provide him with an excuse to exercise the financial power he has been given over Orgon and his family. In the end, the only things that stops Tartuffe is that he gets carried away with his own power. He has destroyed Orgon’s wealth, but that is not enough. He must play his ace-in-the-hole by bringing circumstantial evidence against Orgon to the king’s attention. Only the intervention of a supremely wise king prevents this final indecency from achieving complete success.

If we could believe Molière capable of thoroughly Christian allegory, we might interpret Tartuffe as a completely comedic assertion. The all-wise king would be God and the comedic assertion would be that the eccentric individual is finally jolted back to reality by meeting with the harsher realities of more corrupt people. Though the totally demonic men wrest control of all things to themselves, they will finally be destroyed when they overstep what they have been allowed and place themselves directly in the ways of divine judgment. Thus are human beings recurrently freed from their own growing idiosyncrasies and rescued from the clutches of absolutely corrupt people who are given dominion for a time so that the merely eccentric individual might be reformed.

Taken as part of a general interpretation of Molière, however, such a solution becomes exceedingly improbable. It seems much more likely that the pattern of Tartuffe is ironic comedy, that is, comedy in which the author seems to say one thing while in fact saying something quite different. We have already seen that Molière was capable of such irony in providing double endings for L’Avare, the second of which seems an assertion of Providence while more likely asserting the negation of a providential vision.

Considered in the light of The Miser, it is reasonable that in Tartuffe we are again dealing with a minimally satisfying and satirically edged denouement. What really are the chances of a wise and insightful king being on the throne, much less of his setting Tartuffe up for his own undoing?

In Tartuffe, whatever the oddities of its stage history, it seems to me that the message is precisely that there is little probability of the intervention of an all-wise king. “If you have such government,” Molière seems to say, “rejoice. But don’t count on having such a government around to bail you out of your own eccentricities.” It is perhaps Molière’s darkest vision that in the real world, eccentricities like Orgon’s are not easy to avoid, and worse, the Tartuffes win out with ease. There are few times in history when villains get their just reward even when they have totally overstepped themselves.

If this is the message of Tartuffe, the play is certainly balanced on the boundary between comedy and satire. While the plot ends comedically, the pattern of the whole is either ironically comedic or not comedic at all. The assertion the play would make as straight-forward comedy is diametrically opposed to the assertion it makes if we recognize its ironic character.

Tartuffe is tremendously interesting theatre, a tour de force that deserves the plaudits it has received from audiences for three centuries. It is also an honest play, willing to look hypocrisy squarely in the eye and to fight that hypocrisy all the way to the royal audience chamber itself. But a deep and consistent interpretation of Tartuffe depends upon solid understanding of both comedy and satire. No simple description of Molière as model comedian or technically deficient dramatist will suffice. He is instead an experimental playwright, exploring the border between satire and comedy.




[i] “Introduction,” Eight Plays by Molière, edited by Morris Bishop (New York: Modern Library, 1957), p. xii.